If you missed out on Sonia O’Sullivan’s autobiography over Christmas, you ought to make it your first sporting read of the New Year.
Written with Tom Humphries, who has done another masterful job, ‘Sonia: My Story’ does exactly what it says on the cover, capturing the highs and lows of a remarkable athletics career.
It kicks off with the Cobh runner recalling her excitedness ahead of the 1992 Olympic 3,000 metre final, in which she agonisingly missed out on a medal when finishing fourth.
In the midst of the opening pages, she remembers what lit the running fire inside her: outings at the Community Games, the rivalries she enjoyed at juvenile level and enjoyable days spent in muddy fields across Munster.
For anyone who has ever run competitively, this makes for wonderfully vivid stuff.
Days in the slop near Holy Cross Abbey, evenings spent training at Saint Augustine’s in Dungarvan and hot afternoons on the coat-tails of faster opponents at Morton Stadium all sped through my mind while I read this memoir.
Given the sour taste left by the Chinese at Stuttgart in 1993, the ludicrous ‘flag incident’ in Gothenburg in 1995 and the heartache of the Atlanta Olympics, the author cherishes the innocence of those early days.
For those early, enthusiasm-filled meetings were a world away from the pressure cooker of the Grand Prix and Championship circuit, the preparation for which consumed Sonia wholly.
It came at a price, she admits, denying herself a fuller life outside her vocation, something she is now more than compensating for, happily married with two beautiful daughters.
There’s little doubting now, with the benefit of over a dozen years to reflect on the nightmare of Atlanta, that Sonia O’Sullivan simply ran too much in the build-up to those best forgotten Summer Games.
In her pursuit of excellence, she had over-trained and her body simply couldn’t do what she’d hoped it could do over 12 and a half laps on a stifling night in the Olympic Stadium. Too much of a good thing, etc.
“Before Atlanta I didn’t really feel alone because I was working towards something,” she writes.
“After Atlanta I felt, what was it all for? Why do I do all this? The ultimate thing you want to achieve you don’t get. Are people laughing at you? Should you start all over again? Maybe walk away? After Atlanta I was starting all over again without the nerve or the optimism.”
Vulnerability and self-doubt has been as prominent a part of Sonia O’Sullivan’s sporting life as that remarkable ‘kick’ that propelled her to World track and Cross County gold.
She wasn’t a robotic strip of sinew and muscle, unlike some of the runners that have been produced from labs over the past 30 years.
When she wasn’t breaking the tape, particularly on those days when she craved victory, her eyes welled up and her voice quivered in post-race interviews.
As also proved the case with Paula Radcliffe, Sonia bared her soul in front of the watching TV millions and earned the admiration of many the world over for so doing. She also stepped up to the plate with no ego or over-inflated sense of her own importance.
The book is similarly ego-free. There’s also a deep sense of humility in the book which, while written in a style familiar to fans of Humphries’ work, never dampens the subject’s voice for a paragraph.
The forensic recollection of certain races could easily be attributed to Humphries’ good detective work in researching the majestic and disastrous races of O’Sullivan’s career.
However, the competitive runner’s mind readily recalls each bump, elbow, attack and misstep. Training logs are meticulously recorded, with many a diary entry marked under a simple heading: how I felt.
As an elite athlete, whose mind had no space for anything other than running for many years, Sonia O’Sullivan was destined to make for a fascinating subject when it came to a treatment like this. And that certainly proves the case here.
Take the final moments of the 5,000 metre Olympic final in Sydney, for example, which sucks the reader into a time machine to that autumnal morning in 2000.
Heart pounding, I was on my haunches in front of a television in a common area between classes at DIT Aungier Street, willing Sonia to that gold medal she so desperately desired. Feels like yesterday, I’m sure you’d agree.
“Szabo goes first,” she writes. “She knows I am about to pull the trigger. She outdraws me. But now I am gone too. She has the inside lane and she is clever. As we come off the bend, her elbows do this odd wide shuffle; it makes it seem as if she is going faster. It distracts me for a second.
“We do those last 200 metres flat out in 28 seconds. Scorching the earth, running on air. It is as exciting and as pure a race as I have ever known. Gabriela Szabo makes it to the line ahead of me. Her arms stretch out wide. My head looks to the heavens…
“I take a lap of honour just as Cathy Freeman is getting her medal. Her nation’s flag is raised as I sprint down the straight with a furry wombat in one hand and a tricolour in the other. Happy. Happy. Happy.”
What’s splendid about this book is how even-handed it proves as a read. ‘Sonia: My Story’ is not top heavy with respect to any of the many facets it deals with – be it her relationships with Kim McDonald, husband Nic Bideau or the BLE/Athletics Ireland.
In fact it’s to her credit that she doesn’t do a hatchet job on a governing body that hasn’t always covered itself in glory.
Sonia O’Sullivan only “supposes” that her career was a successful one. Well, it was a hell of a lot more than that.
A three-time World Champion and an Olympic Silver medallist can reflect with great pride on her ability to pick herself up in the face of adversity and do her family, her country and herself proud.
And this book is a marvellous testament to a career well run and a life enriched by the experience of it all.
This is a truly great read, one guaranteed by the combination of a supremely gifted runner with a fascinating tale to tell and an equally gifted writer with the ability to record it.
‘Sonia: My Story’ is published by Penguin Ireland and is available in all good bookstores